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Blog // Technology
November 25, 2011

The Rule Of Halves

A lot of photographic conversations get stuck at the rule of thirds, perhaps forgetting that although it’s a powerful grid system, it’s not the only option out there.

Craft & Vision just released an e-book entitled Beyond Thirds. This week I received a copy of David duChemin’s latest book, Photographically Speaking: A Deeper Look at Creating Stronger Images (Voices That Matter), which also contains some discussion of the the rule of thirds (a full review will come in due course). Moreover, I’ve had a lot of conversations lately with photographers where the rule of thirds keeps coming up.

The Rule Of Thirds helps us bring balance and control to images

I often use the rule of thirds, especially when struggling to compose a photo, or balance elements in the frame. But, using the rule of thirds doesn’t always feel right. And, to be frank, some of the reasons that photographers give for its power don’t gel with my visual sensibility.

Perhaps the problem is that many photographers learn about composition from other photographers, or books and courses about photography written by, you guessed it, photographers. It’s a closed loop and in any field of activity, closed loops create distortions.

The rule of thirds works, at the most basic level, because it’s a grid. Visual design, from architecture to typography, from painting to magazine layout works by using grids, of various forms, to bring order into a visual composition. Grids allow us to balance elements, create order, identify patterns, manage symmetry, develop consistency and generally understand how the shapes in our composition are working together.

The rule of thirds is one type of grid system. But, there are many. Some combine different numbers of rows and coloumns. Some, even have asymetrical patterns. Garr Reynolds, in Presentation Zen Design: Simple Design Principles and Techniques to Enhance Your Presentations, points out that even the humble Bento Box is a form of design grid – it allows a small number of colourful, differently shaped and textured food items to sit close together in relative harmony. That makes me wonder what photos shot with the Rule of Bento might look like.

Tacos In A Bento Grid
The Bento Box Grid might be interesting for food photography!

Still, a lot of photographic conversations seem stuck at the rule of thirds, perhaps forgetting that although it’s a powerful grid system, it’s not the only option out there.

This point was hammered home while re-reading Scott McCloud’s excellent book, Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. I should make a confession here that will assure I’m never regarded as a photography guru; most of what I know about photographic composition didn’t come from reading books on photography. Rather it came from walking around art galleries, four years of technical (industrial arts) drawing in high school and trying to draw comics.

Not that photography had no influence on me growing up; of course it did. Album covers got me interested in portraiture, car magazines made me attentive to details and surfaces and fashion magazines (along with National Geographic) made me curious about amazing looking people in breathtaking locations.

But, my sense of colour and story-telling in an image comes more from studying painters, my ideas about form and balance are indebted to technical drawing and the way I use lines, negative space and perspective comes from comics.

Cab In Halves
Sometimes putting an image dead centre and letting context and motion balance around it works.

So, when I read Scott McCloud talk about the power of putting a character in the dead centre of a frame, part of me, the part that has not totally been beaten down by the rule of thirds shouted – yes!

McCloud then goes on to talk about the power of leaving the centre of a frame vacant and how that empty space can, depending on the arrangement of the subjects in the image, create a sense of story or intrigue.

Tso Moriri In Halves
Although there are different grids working in this image, the halves show the absence in the story.

When photographers talk about the rule of thirds, they highlight the importance of placing objects on the intersections of the thirds, be it faces, eyes, lips or whatever. But, what often gets missed is the question of where to put nothing – empty space, negative space, leading space, call it what you will.

In the same way that context in an image can tell a story, perhaps books on a shelf that suggest someone is a student or librarian, so absence, or nothingness in an image can convey a story.

Dancers In Halves
The centre-point is an axis in this image and also the introduction of mystery.

The absence of objects in an image can help tell a story. McCloud gives some classic comic examples; empty space suggesting a mysterious absence, a distance to be crossed or an unseen object of attention. Sometimes what we don’t put at the centre of the image is just as important as what we do put there.

Instead of just using a grid to suggest where might put something in our image, we can also use a grid to help us place nothingness within the image as well.

Saidah In Halves
There is a lot of negative space in this image, but the singer's gesture gives us ideas about what is going on in that space.

Finally, some photographers get defensive about the language of the rule of thirds, as if it some kind of law or requirement of good composition. But, my sense is that the rule of thirds is a rule in the sense of being a custom or habit. It’s a bit like the way we might say, “as a rule, we drink water with our meals.” Certainly, in my home, we do drink water with our meals. But, if there’s pizza on the table, we’d be just a likely to serve up soft drinks, or beer instead.

LiJiang In Halves
One of my favourite rule of halves images. The emptiness in the centre of the image, with the empty chair, begs a story to be told.

Perhaps a better way to think of rules like these is to see then as accepted truths, or received wisdom. We have the benefit of generations of visual artists who have gone ahead and discovered that grids (like the rule of thirds) can help make images more powerful. Whatever grid we choose to use, thirds, halves, or even Bento Boxes doesn’t matter as much as the fact that as photographers we are open to the knowledge that other visual artists have made available to us.

Ricardo Gros 12 years ago

Cant help but remind me of our recent discussion on exposures… when i was very much focus on the technical argument attempting to crystallise in my mind all the fundamental drivers that impacted the process… you did get a touch frustrated as you endeavoured to steer me towards sensing and playing with the variables…. and you were right, playing with the variables, gaining instant feedback and the process will becomes intuitive. I on the other hand needed to remind myself of some of the first principles if for nothing else to pacify the logical part of my mind.

So why rules? … not only on photography but in so many different endeavours … in the main because as humans we tend to always want to encapsulate in the simplest possible format how success will be created…. often and almost always without regard to first principles or the tiresome journey of trying to understand them.

The rule of thirds works…. it provides a basic framework and in the absence of anything else is a brilliant starting point, and as you suggest perhaps … that is all it should ever be.

But just back to first principles … the human mind (Circa 95%) reads photographs from left to right …. it’s fascinating to see the impact on our perception of an image when we mirror it. The shot will shift from peaceful to tense, from intriguing to uncomfortable from peaceful to active… and or create a very different perspective/focus in our minds.

And this is just one element of what impacts the composition of a great shot. One dimension …. there are so many dimensions to explore.

Ultimately photography traverses the boundaries of image capture to art when the images are able to releases their emotional power and impact the observer.

How it achieves this is limitless …. by the way i did go back and reviewed Dali’s work ….. it is amazing how few would actually fit the rule of thirds ….and even those would be arguable. He is after all…. DAALI !!

So where should the balance be between understanding the process and feeling it…. How much was Daly influenced by the rule of thirds ???

and when compared against total random shots
to and our early discussions on playing guitar when you first pick it one up before you were 10….

Fernando Gros 12 years ago

Ric – thank you for taking the time to comment. While Dali was not constrained by the rule of thirds, some images come to mind that do fit the schema, such as sleep. In fact, grids play a big role in his work, though he used a number of different kinds of grids.

That kind of comes back to my point, which you touch on, we look for rules as a way to not have to deal with more underlying compositional principles. It seems to me a lot of photographers get stuck on the rule of thirds because it works; it is artistic pragmatism if you like.

The notion of reading images from left to right has never seemed compelling to me. It’s not wrong, it’s just not climacteric. Perhaps that’s why most books on composition that I have read either do not mention it, or only give it passing attention.

First of all, reading left to right is a cultural norm and, of course, in many cultures reading is aligned right to left. Perhaps more importantly, left to right pre-apprehension is textural – meaning our minds expect it when we see text, but I’m not convinced we expect it when we see objects in an image.

Not that lines don’t matter, because they do. Horizontal relationships in an image have power, because our eyes are accustomed to scanning horizontally (which is not a culturally dependent behaviour). However, there’s plenty of reason to believe that vertical relationships are equally or even more important (something Dali highlights with Christ of Saint John of the Cross).

That’s why diagonals become so important in discussions about composition, especially the top-left to bottom-right diagonal and the top-right to bottom-left diagonal. Lines and curves that occur in the image that are placed along these diagonals will lead the eye powerfully within the image.

That raises an important issue, because we don’t read images the way we read text. We read text sequentially, from letter to letter, line to line, but in an image our eye moves more freely. Again if you look at Dali’s work, say one of his surreal landscapes, your eye moves from object, left and right, up and down and in circles. It’s this continuous motion that keeps up looking at an image for a long time, far longer than if the image was simply full of text.

Moreover, in an image the eye is most powerfully drawn to luminance, colour and contrast. These trump lines a lot of the time. Place a well lit, beautiful object in the bottom right of an image and we will go there first. Our eyes won’t scan or read the image looking for it, they’ll go there even before we are aware our attention has been focussed.

All of which is my way of saying that in the absence of an attention grabbing something on the left of the image we won’t read left to right. Rather, we will read from thing that gets our attention to thing that gets our attention. Consider a blank computer desktop; where do you look first? As a Mac-user, I always look at the top-right first, because that’s where the variable information (date, time, battery life, wifi status) are displayed. On a guitar amp, I always start at the right side of the control panel, because that’s where the power switch and power lights are.

Whatever schema we use – rule of halves, rule of thirds, primary and secondary diagonals, the golden ratio – it ultimately comes down to the things in the image and the relationship between those things. That’s what separates great photos from ordinary ones, the ability to capture correlation and contrast within a single frame.

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